U.S. Army veteran Joshua Stavrakoglou, 30, of Centereach, who served...

U.S. Army veteran Joshua Stavrakoglou, 30, of Centereach, who served in Iraq, is now pursuing a journalism degree at Stony Brook University. He is shown here at the campus's Student Activity Center on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

As white-haired men filed past him following a ceremony for war veterans at Stony Brook University last week, a bearded student with tattooed arms and a camo backpack flipped through a notebook.

The older men -- in their late 80s or beyond -- were war veterans. But so was the student, Joshua Stavrakoglou, 30, as were six students who shared a table with him -- separated by decades but war veterans just the same.

The word "veteran" conjures up a plethora of images: the Greatest Generation of World War II, the Korean War's forgotten vets, their embattled and misunderstood brethren of the Vietnam era.

But as Veterans Day 2014 dawns, the next generation of Long Island veterans of a prolonged war -- many in their 20s and early 30s -- are returning. Few seem eager to gather at beer and smoke-filled veterans halls, once safe havens for vets stateside, but now aging relics from another era.

Instead, many are taking part in another time-honored tradition of returning veterans: attending college or entering politics. They share similarities with previous generations of vets, but also are redefining what it means to be a veteran in the 21st century.

"Not all veterans are old, white, tattooed men anymore," said Dev Verma, 31, a Centereach resident who served in the Persian Gulf aboard the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, and whose parents immigrated from India in 1974.

He noted that the president of Stony Brook's Veterans Student Organization is Chinese-American, and a woman.

For Stavrakoglou, civilian life began when he returned from Iraq and later, discharged from the Army in 2012. He'd been an intelligence officer in Iraq but, with few job offers on Long Island, found himself living with his parents.

"I refused to work at McDonald's, not after six years in the Army," Stavrakoglou said. "I called my father up and said, 'I don't know what I am supposed to do."

He enrolled at Stony Brook after a stint selling cellphones. "I saw almost no options left."

More than 2 million Americans have served in combat areas since troops were sent to Afghanistan in 2001. That number includes thousands, like Stavrakoglou and others, now settling into life on Long Island.

Last week, one Iraq War veteran, Lee Zeldin, 34, won an election that positions him to become the only local member of Congress with military experience in a combat zone.

Hundreds of new veterans are studying at local college campuses, including several in leadership positions. They are purchasing homes and raising families, just like previous generations of vets.

But veterans halls that once teemed with former troops, are drawing precious few new members. When men hunch over beers at Long Island American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War posts, most are past 60.

The commander of the national Veterans of Foreign Wars, John W. Stroud, recently said the gap between elderly and young vets must be a focus of the organization moving forward. The VFW needs to recruit younger leaders and pay attention to issues affecting new veterans. Otherwise, Stroud said, it risks being dismissed as a place for "old and out of touch veterans who would rather drink in a dimly lit canteen than open their doors to our younger veterans."

Whether the battlefield was Guadalcanal, Pork Chop Hill, Khe Sanh, or Fallujah, returning veterans have faced the challenge of settling back into civilian life. They are bringing home tales of hand-to-hand combat or attacks by insurgents. Many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan grapple with these challenges, and new ones too.

About one in three have reported some level of psychological distress. Suicides among younger vets remain a troubling trend, even as the Department of Veterans Affairs has bolstered prevention efforts. In 2011, the suicide rate among veterans under 29 reached 57.9 per 100,000 users of VA health care, according to a VA study -- 44 percent higher than two years earlier.

Unlike the during and after World War II when the economy was robust in almost every year up to the end of the Vietnam War, America's newest veterans are returning to fewer jobs and fewer opportunities.

The economy has grown by less than 3 percent per year in all but two years since troops arrived in Afghanistan in 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. Unemployment among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans reached nearly 11 percent in 2012.

Perhaps the most striking difference between new vets and those of the past has been the increased use of National Guard and Reserve units in combat.

About one in three veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan came from these units, more than at any time in U.S. history. Some members of the Guard's 69th Infantry Regiment served in Iraq in 2004 and in Afghanistan in 2008. They cycled between careers, families and combat hardships.

That cycling can disrupt two key networks -- family life and military buddies. Both help with the psychological stress of combat, said Michael Knauer, an outreach coordinator for the veterans support organization Team Red, White and Blue.

"It doesn't matter how strong you are," said Knauer, a Coast Guard veteran who this year helped organize an American Legion post at Long Island University's LIU Post campus, in Brookville. "Multiple deployments can take a toll on you."

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